A theory of book publishing, Act IV: the question of self-publishing
The advent of (a) digital printing, enabling short-run printing and even print on demand, and (b) ebooks has sharpened the question of what it is that publishers do and how they might add value. Disintermediation (here defined as the elimination of the publisher as an intermediary between author and public) has become more attractive than it was.
The accounting of the benefits and costs of self-publishing relative to the classical model of publishing are more complex than is commonly recognised. Typically over-looked factors are the opportunity costs of self-publishing — especially regarding the value of the author’s time.
I have outlined these considerations in a previous post — ‘Self-publishing: why (or why not) and how)‘, 10 November 2012 — and so won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that we can summarise the sources of value added by the publisher under two headings: (a) the co-ordination of services and (b) branding.
Co-ordination of services
Many services are outsourced by publishers. For example, publishers might use freelancers for such services as copy-editing, proofreading, and indexing. In fact, in principle virtually everything that a publisher does can be outsourced: it is difficult to identify an essence that must be kept in-house. Hence the attraction of self-publishing: if a service can be outsourced by a publisher, then in principle it may be outsourced by a self-publisher.
But publishing is more than the summation of such services. Publishing does not equal editing + typesetting + printing, etc. This is because, in addition to such services, those services require co-ordination. It is in this co-ordination, the demands of which are sometimes overlooked by prospective self-publishers, that much of whatever value-added there may be resides.
‘Co-ordination’ here means, in part, just management – for example, placing an order with a printer. But it also means something like ‘bringing into alignment’. For example, the publisher might have a vision for a book and then select suppliers (designer, typesetter, indexer, etc.) well suited to the type of work in hand (rather than simply the cheapest) and will provide them with briefs designed to communicate the vision. In this way we may say that there is an holistic element to co-ordination – an holistic element that requires publishing intelligence, regardless of who is doing the publishing. Thus co-ordination — ‘holistic co-ordination’, if you like — should have a central place in any theory of book publishing.
Even co-ordination can, at least to some extent, be outsourced. For example, we have on occasion used the excellent Out of House Publishing to manage projects for us: they have sourced the editing, proofreading, typesetting, printing and binding for us and managed the authors during the process. Even there, however, we retained a share in the holistic element of co-ordination: we formulated and communicated the brief, which they then implemented.
Publishers also, except in cases of contract publishing, provide a brand. Some of these brands are recognised by consumers. For example, Mills & Boon, Haynes car manuals, and Penguin. True, most publishing brands aren’t well recognised amongst the public. (For example, how many people reading the Booker Prize winner can tell you who published it?) Brands do however mean something within the supply chain. Brands such as, say, Atlantic or Sage do mean something to businesses such as retailers, wholesalers, and library suppliers.
In general, then, there are two distinctive publishing elements: (holistic) co-ordination and branding. I’m tempted to invent a term — say, ‘publish-icity’ — to encapsulate them.